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On Writing Prose

With the Anthology Challenge in full swing, we thought it would be helpful to put some tips and things to watch out for to help you tackle those short stories! Remember, everything in this guide is just that: a guide. Writing is an art, and what works for us might not necessarily work for you. If you feel breaking the rules is right for your work, then absolutely do that!   This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s just some things we see fairly often, especially people who don’t have much experience with writing prose.   We wish you all the best of luck and we can’t wait to see what you come up with!  

Finding Your Story's Purpose

If there is difficulty in the beginning, it may be beneficial to shrink your central idea down to a concise, eye-catching sentence. It should be provocative and endearing, heartwarming or pit-forming; this single sentence will describe your entire premise. It is good to remember that, as humans, we share common similarities concerning what and how we are moved. Readers desire to be captured by stories and whisked away, and touching the core values of humanity is an easy technique to hold attentions.  
A powerful tool for grief is the feeling of injustice.
  What is the biggest injustice in your story? What is the wrong that must be righted? Or the right that will be wronged? This exercise can be beneficial for plots as well as character creation, especially surrounding goals.   Some examples of concise headers are:  
A man gifted with the ability to see through walls is panicked by the discovery of something living within his attic.
 
A timid, soulless woman must find the courage to sacrifice herself for the opportunity to inherit a child’s soul.
  Think of the advertisements you see for upcoming movies, shows, or books: they all grab your attention somehow. Getting the attention of an audience is an easily forgotten step when starting any fresh work, but can be devastating if forgotten.   Remember to also keep yourself excited about your plot. When working on a header, try to feel what excites you most; write what makes your own chest tighten with adrenaline. There will be others who inevitably feel the same and will love your writing for it.  

Sentence Structure

This might seem like a pretty basic skill, but sentence structure can make or break a piece of prose, and it can be complicated. Here are a few common issues with sentence structure and how to use sentences to your advantage.  

Variation

Varied sentence structure is vital for any work of prose. This refers not only to the types of sentences used, but also their length. Take the following examples:  
Sam walked to the store. Her dog came with her. They saw her friend, Jane. Jane waved hello. She looked eager to see them. Sam crossed the street. She startled a cat. It ran into an alley. Its noise scared Sam. The dog chased it.
  Most of the sentences here start with a different word, which is good, but they also have very similar structure (noun - verb - noun). Without changing the basic plot, let’s try to shake up the sentences here.  
Sam walked to the store, her dog, Luke, in tow. Across the street, Jane watered the flowers. She turned and waved. When the street was clear, Sam and Luke crossed. Before they reached Jane - she seemed eager to talk to them - Sam and Luke startled a cat in a trash can. It shrieked and tore down the alleyway. Luke, barking, thundered after it. In an instant, they were both out of sight.
  Writers often try to vary their sentence structure by using what I call the “-ing” sentence. While varying sentence structure is a great thing to do, this technically is usually wrong. Take this sentence:  
Spinning, Julie grabbed the piece of paper from Ron.
  What this sentence intends is that Julie spins around to face Ron, and then takes the paper. What it’s actually saying is that Julie is twirling in a circle without stopping. You can still use the “-ing” ending if the verb is something that can be done throughout the entire sentence. Like this:  
Smiling, Julie grabbed the piece of paper from Ron.
  This works because Julie could reasonably smile while taking the paper from Ron.  

Run-on Sentences

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Sentences can essentially go on forever. That doesn’t mean they should. Run-on sentences are difficult to comprehend and aren’t engaging to read. I try to not have more than one basic idea per sentence. Try not to let sentences go past 20-ish words.  
Adrien made me some soup yesterday and this was the most disgusting soup I’ve ever tasted because I have no idea what he even put in it - ginger, maybe - but he’s sitting there, waiting for me to finish it and I have no idea what to do, so eventually I drop my spoon and ask him to get me another from the kitchen so that when he leaves I can dilute this soup with my water, but that just made it worse and made my bowl totally full again, so I had to stomach even more of it!
  This sentence is one hundred words long and could definitely do with some breaking up. Luckily it isn’t too difficult to fix a run-on sentence, since they usually come with natural breaks. We can use periods, semicolons, and paragraph breaks to make this sentence more digestible.  
Adrien made me some soup yesterday. This was the most disgusting soup I’ve ever tasted. I have no idea what he even put in it - ginger, maybe? Anyway, he’s sitting there, waiting for me to finish it. I have no idea what to do, so eventually I drop my spoon and ask him to get me another from the kitchen. Once he leaves I dilute this soup with my water, but that just made it worse. Plus it made my bowl totally full again. I had to stomach even more of it!
 

Common Grammatical Mistakes

It can be hard to keep all the rules straight. Here are some mistakes we see most often that grammar programs might not catch.  

Tenses

Keep in mind the tense you’re using and avoid swapping between tenses. The most common tenses you’ll use in prose are past tense or present tense. This applies to action currently happening. The appropriate tense can be used regardless of the standard tense if something is going to happen, has already happened, or in dialogue within the timeframe of the narrative.  
He looks to where he placed the sword earlier that day.
This is correct because the sword had been placed before the timeframe of the narrative. Because it happened in the past, it’s okay to switch tenses here.  
He walks down the street and saw the mailman.
Both of these events (walking down the street and seeing the mailman) happen at the same time, so they should be in the same tense.  

Commas

Commas, like any other form of punctuation, are a tool to accentuate the flow of verbal speech. Writers can either overuse commas or shy away from them entirely. Neither of these aids the growth of said writer’s voice.   Much like verbal dialogue, pauses will either be used more frequently or infrequently dependent on the character or narrator in question. This should not be confused with over-usage, which is primarily noticeable in the narrator’s voice and becomes apparent alongside a lack of sentence diversity.  
Peter, unlike his siblings, was older and wiser, responsible with chores, work, and his allowance.
  This usage, while correct, would be hard to read, over and over, down a page. The mental pauses begin to run into each other. A way to break up the monotony of pausing could be this:  
Peter, unlike his siblings, was older and wiser. Responsible with chores, he earned his allowance each and every weekend.
  Don't be afraid to tear things down and rebuild them. Getting sentimental about your writing can mean you don't push yourself to improve. Allowing yourself to learn and change from the old can produce lively and vibrant writing. Don't be scared to cut some commas out and separate your thoughts. It may give you room to expand further on details you overlooked.  

Commonly Mixed-up Words

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Accept and Except
Accept - to take something
“He accepted the news”
Except - left out
“We were all there except Ted”
 
Affect and Effect
Affect - the verb
“It will affect the sales numbers”
Effect - the noun
“The effect it had was terrible”
 
Its and It’s
Its - a possession belonging to it
“The raccoon washed its paws”
It’s - a contraction for ‘it is’
“It’s time to go”
 
Lose and Loose
Lose - misplace something
“Don’t lose your wallet”
Loose - not tightened
“Your shirt is too loose”
 
Passed and Past
Passed - go by something
“We passed the address already”
Past - a moment in time
“That was in the past”
 
Than and Then
Than - used to compare things
“I did better than she did”
Then - defines a time
“We went to the store then the park”
 
Their, There and They’re
Their - belonging to them
“Their new car is fancy”
There - a distant place
“There is a snake over there”
They're - contraction of ‘they are’
“They’re going to come visit”
 
Through, Threw, Thorough and Though
Through - to go in the middle
“We walked through the crowd”
Threw - past tense of throw
“I threw the ball”
Thorough - to do completely
“He wanted a thorough cleaning”
Though - despite
“She didn’t want to go, though”
 
To, Too and Two
To - an action
“We went to the movies”
Too - as well
“The kangaroo jumped; the rabbit did, too”
Two - the number
“We saw two birds”
 

Dialogue

Dialogue adds a lot of character to a piece of prose and gives readers insight into what characters feel and believe. Remember, dialogue should do one of three things: advance the plot, reveal character and motivations, or explain the situation. While “small talk” happens in day-to-day life, that doesn’t mean we should have small talk spelled out for no reason. If it doesn’t do one of those three things and doesn’t serve any other function, you can simply say: “They chatted about the weather.”  

Grammar Rules

Use quotation marks for exact dialogue, but not for paraphrased quotes like:  
”He said that we should take the car.”
vs
“He said ‘we should take the car.’”
  In the first example, the quote not intended by the speaker to be a direct quote, whereas in the second example, it is intended to be a direct quote. Notice how in the second example the apostrophes are used to denote a spoken quote, or quote within a quote.   Punctuation is usually inside the quotation marks when writing dialogue, but not for quotation marks that are used to define words. Ask yourself if the punctuation is part of the quote or not. If it is, put it inside the quotation marks.  
“Did you hear the news?”   He called it his “masterpiece”.
  When using dialogue tags, separate the quotation with a comma inside the quotation marks and a period after the dialogue tag. When interjecting action in the middle of one quoted sentence, use em-dashes (two hyphens).  
“I saw a mouse under the couch,” David said. “Why do we even have a cat?”   “Get up you lazy”—Jack grabbed the cat and propped him up on his fat legs—“good-for-nothing”—the cat slid back down into a motionless pile—“feline.”
  Each new speaker should get their own paragraph. Try not to combine the actions of one character and the dialogue of another in one paragraph.  

Tips for Natural Dialogue

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Remember that people aren’t always grammatically correct. It’s okay to break some grammar rules in the interest of natural-sounding dialogue.   You've likely heard to never use the word 'said' in your writing. While using words like “whispered”, “exclaimed”, or “pleaded” in dialogue tags might seem beneficial, there are ways to enhance your writing further by avoiding reliance on them. These words are fine for description, but when repeated in dialogue tags they may set off the flow of the conversation and bring the reader out of the moment. Using “said”, “asked”, and “answered” will push you to focus on the meat of the paragraph, or the ‘showing’. In fact, your reader will likely not notice them at all. Context clues go a long way in informing your reader how things are spoken. You can also forgo the dialogue tags entirely sometimes and use character’s actions, opinions, and manners of speech to show who is talking. Let's look at a couple examples:  
"Don't you talk to me like that," Mike growled. Serena shouted, "I'm trying to help you!" "This conversation is over!" he roared. "No, wait!" she implored. "Why didn't you wait until we were alone before you embarrassed me in front of everyone?" Mike wailed.
  You would want this moment in your story to be the most immersive to your reader, but they would likely get bogged down in the dialogue tags I used, and the conversation doesn't flow as well. Let's try this same conversation and swap those dialogue tags out.  
"Don't you talk to me like that," Mike said. "I'm trying to help you!" Serena answered. "This conversation is over!" His voice bounced around the apartment like the roar of a lion as he reached for the door handle. Her hand shot out to rest atop his. "No, wait!" "Why didn't you wait until we were alone before you embarrassed me in front of everyone?" Mike said as he opened the door and left.
  If writing dialogue seems difficult, try speaking it aloud to yourself. Try to empathize with how the character(s) feels and let it flow with your natural speech. Acting scenes out can place yourself in the character's shoes easier and produce natural, fluent dialogue. Remember: The voice used to narrate will likely be different from those speaking. Characters must retain their own voice during dialogue, or they will fade into the background of your story.
 

How to Start

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to start a story. Remember that you don’t need to begin writing at the start. I usually start a couple scenes in and work my way backwards to the beginning. However, if you’re looking for different ways to start your story, here are a few options. Some of these can even be paired together.   show examples

Food for Thought

Start us out with a quote. Does your story have a theme, thesis, or recurring “motto” of sorts? Have that be your opening sentence. Does your character have a phrase that she lives by? Let her tell it to us! This is especially effective if you plan to frame that theme at the very end, or if it changes drastically over the course of the story.  

Wait, What?

Show us something a little puzzling and don’t explain it right away. Let the intrigue keep your readers guessing for a little while. This can be a great way to get a sense of mystery and tends to work well with fantasy and sci-fi!  

En Media Res

Start us in the middle of the story and then “rewind” to explain how a character got into the situation at hand. This can be really effective if the climax of the story is known early on and there is a long, obvious buildup. Beware of revealing too much about the end!

The Narrator

Have your narrator say something to us directly. This is a good opening if your narrator talks directly to the reader frequently (think Series of Unfortunate Events or Deadpool). Work a lot with the fourth wall and metanarrative? This could be an effective opening for you!  

Conflict Establisher

Throw us right into the inciting incident and go back for characterization and setting after. This can be an effective opener for ensemble stories and stories that have room for character and setting before the character begins their journey.  

Establisher

Show us something about your setting or character. This is the most common opener, and can quickly set the scene and teach us something about the main character if done right. Avoid “purple prose”. This isn’t the time to write four paragraphs about the sunlight in the trees, or people will skip to when the action starts.
 

How to End

The ending is the last thing your reader will experience from your story, so you probably want to make it pop! Here are some examples of common endings.   show examples

Framing

Touch on something established earlier in the story. This ending goes well with the "Food for Thought" opener, or really any time you circle back to a previously established saying or visual.  

The Shocker

End with something unexpected or otherwise shocking. This works well in mysterious (obviously). The story usually has to be written FOR this type of ending, however, so keep that in mind!

Ambiguous

Does he die in the end? Do they make it to the island? Was that a metaphor, or was it literal? Make us wonder and argue about what happened just after the story ends, or what the final sentences truly mean.  

Bigger Picture

Zoom out from the scope of your story and show us the bigger picture. This works well with showing the impact the circumstances of the plot had on the wider environment the story takes place in or if a character spends all the story fighting a small problem, and you zoom out to show an even bigger problem waiting to present itself.
Thank you for reading! If you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to comment them below. Again we wish everyone the best of luck on their Anthology projects and can’t wait to see them all come to life!
-Leechy and Anz

Misc. Tips

Here are some extra important quick tips for you!  

Show, Don't Tell

This is something you've likely heard if you've ever written or studied writing in school. It's something of a cardinal rule, and it's a good thing to keep in mind. Don't tell us a character is mad, show us his heart rate increasing and his fists clenching. Don't tell us it's autumn, weave the falling leaves into the narrative. This will make your story feel more alive, and less like a laundry list of things that happened.   Of course, like many "rules" in writing, there are times when telling fits better. These include times when showing would take a long time, and it isn't very important to the story apart form cursory information. In these cases, telling will suffice.  

Passive Voice

This is another rule you've likely heard of. Passive voice refers to sentences unnecessarily removed from their subject. Here are just a few examples.  
The fire was put out every night by the campers.
  This sentence could be improved by simply rearranging the sentence.  
Every night, the campers put out the fire.
  Words to look out for are is, was, will, were, be, and are.   Of course, there are times where passive voice can be used without issue. In dialogue, and when subjects aren't known or important. Let's say in this example the character doesn't know who took the books:  
When he returned, the books were gone.
  This is a fine use of passive voice, since there is no subject to tie to the action.  

Filter Words

Filter words are words that remove the reader from the action and instead filter the action through your character's senses. They usually look like this:  
He saw the building burn.
  This removes the reader from the situation, effectively filtering the action through the character's eyes unnecessarily. Usually it reads better to simply say:  
The building burned
  If you want to call special attention to your character noticing something, then saying "He saw" will have a greater effect.  

Superlatives

Avoid overusing descriptor words when referring to your characters. This could be anything like “the shorter man” or “the redhead”. In most cases, names or pronouns will suffice. Removing safety nets like superlatives will also encourage you to adapt as a writer and expand on your skills of “show, don’t tell”.   Just like with dialogue tags, names and pronouns eventually become invisible to your reader, allowing them to digest what's going on more easily and become more immersed in the situation you've created for them. Superlatives, on the other hand, draw the reader back out of your work and remind them that your characters are ultimately just words on a page.  

Adverbs

Adverbs are descriptors for action. Sometimes they’re necessary, but many times you can skip the adverb and choose a more fitting verb. Take this example:  
He walked slowly through the mud.
vs
He traipsed through the mud.
Think about what adverb-verb combinations can be replaced with a stronger verb. This will not only make your work more concise and smoother to read, but will also give it more character and punch.  

Descriptions

Don’t halt the action to give us a lengthy description of a person or thing. Think about when your character may notice something - it probably wouldn’t be in the middle of a fight or when they’re doing something important.   Descriptions don’t have to be given all at once, either. Weave it in naturally, and just give us enough to get the basic idea. If the eye color of a character isn’t important to the narrative or unique or unusual in some way, leave it up to the imagination of the reader.   Don’t just describe how things look. Try to employ each of the five senses if you can. Similes can be helpful for smells and sounds.  

Prepositions

It's not best practice to end a sentence with a preposition. Prepositions are words like of, at, in, out, or with. For example, this sentence would be incorrect:  
It was something she didn't want to be associated with.
  It would be more grammatically correct to say:  
It was something with which she didn't want to be associated.
  This is a rule I break a lot in dialogue. People don't generally speak like the second example, and, despite being grammatically correct, sounds pretty robotic when coming out of a character's mouth.  

Semicolons and Em-Dashes

A semicolon belongs between two full (but related) sentences. Use it when you could naturally join the two in a single sentence.  
Sarah opened the fridge; she wanted a soda.
  Em-dashes can be used in several different circumstances. These include an interrupted sentence, adding clarifying information, and to clarify lists.  
"This umbrella I had—I think it was really old —broke and spilled water all over me!"   "We saw—and this is really rare—a white lion!"   "Spotted dogs—such as dalmatians, setters, and terriers—are my favorites!"
 

Break the Rules

Writing is an art, not a science. Breaking rules purposefully can add character, interest, and tone to your writing. For example, sentence fragments can make the reader feel anxious and a part of the action. Find where to break the rules and surprise us!

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Comments

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Sage Lucent Sinclair
Lucent Sinclair
30 Aug, 2019 19:47

This is a pretty outstanding digest for the concepts it covers, especially for helping beginners avoid common mistakes or wasted time. However, you are spreading a common myth about prepositions. It is not incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition in English. It is only, at worst, slightly less formal. Questions, passive voice, and phrasal verbs (like "associated with") in particular are examples where not only is it fine to end on a preposition, sometimes it is unavoidable. The best practice here is to write naturally. If you replace "The Lego he stepped on" with "The Lego on which he stepped" your readers are going to recoil.

31 Aug, 2019 23:01

pretty neet